Belchertown lands grant to better help survivors of domestic, sexual assaults

Published: 10/3/2017 8:41:04 AM

BELCHERTOWN — Police have received a $242,537 grant to improve their response to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

The Belchertown Police Department announced Monday that it received the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. The grant covers a three-year period.

The money will be used by the Belchertown and Northampton police departments, funding the services of a victim advocate from the University of Massachusetts Center for Women and Community.

Belchertown Police Chief Christopher Pronovost said in a statement that the advocate will work part time from the town’s station.

“The goal is to provide the knowledge and the resources to provide best practices to victims,” Pronovost said Tuesday. “Both the officers and victim advocates will be able to work much more closely with victims.”

This is the first time Belchertown Police have had a dedicated advocate working out of its department.

“This will be new to us to have someone actually in the building,” Pronovost said.

An advocate gives individuals a chance to speak with a civilian, which may alleviate the reluctance and discomfort some experience when speaking to officers, Pronovost explained.

The partnership between the two departments is a way for the Northampton Police Department to continue having a victim advocate even after its grant funding finished.

“Certainly, both towns, like every other community in the area, have experienced their fair share of all of that — domestic violence, sexual assault,” Pronovost said. “We do have a need here in our community.”

Becky Lockwood, the associate director of counseling and rape crisis services with the Center for Women and Community, said the victim advocate’s work between the two police departments and with the center she oversees will help strengthen the relationships among the three parties.

“The grant will help people understand the police’s role better and help police understand our role and that we’re not just trying to sabotage the investigation. They want to see the perpetrators brought to justice, so we will be working toward that common goal,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood expects the victim advocate to begin work with the center “pretty quickly,” but a date has not been specified. The advocate will start with outreach to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in the community.

Lockwood said the victim advocate will work with police “on a regular basis,” though she declined to identify the person.

Lockwood said she hopes that the two police departments will feature the victim advocate on their websites as a way to let victims know that they can reach out to someone without necessarily going to the police first.

The victim advocate will be “acting as a kind of go-between between the victim and the police. They’ll help explain the process, and if the survivors have questions, they will answer them,” Lockwood said. “It’s all about helping the survivor.”

While the victim advocate will act as a bridge between victim and police, information given to the advocate will still be confidential, Lockwood said.

The funding will also be used to provide specialized training to officers in the areas of sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking, stalking and violence against elders and the disabled.

“There will be free training by the advocate. They’ll be either doing the training themselves or partnering with the district attorney’s office,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said the training will inform officers of the best practices to use when helping victims. These practices include trauma-informed interviewing, a set of techniques for police to use when interviewing a sexual assault victim.

“A sexual assault survivor might remember particular smells or images or sounds, but might not remember the event chronologically. That’s very normal for someone who’s experienced a traumatic event,” Lockwood said.

“Training will help officers learn to ask questions like, ‘do you remember music playing or a particular smell?’ Questions like that will help police and survivors put together a timeline of the event.”

The victim advocate, Lockwood said, will also help identify areas in police protocol that need to be changed to include the best research-backed practices.

The grant allows the departments to work in collaboration with several area service providers, including Safe Passage, the Center for New Americans, Casa Latina and the Stonewall Center.

“My understanding is that our involvement with this is to help train police and help them be more supportive of the LGBTQ+ community,” director of the Stonewall Center Genny Beemyn said. “We’ve done training, for example, on how to respect an individual’s gender identities.”

The grant will be managed by the Belchertown Police Department and advocate services will begin later in the month.

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